Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

West of Other: An Interview with Brendan Egan

Brendan Egan’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Yemassee, Threepenny Review, Witness, and other places. A native Connecticuter, he has worked as a lobster shucker, ice cream truck driver, expert chino folder, and door-to-door knife salesman. He lives in west Texas, where he teaches at Midland College and attempts to keep a garden. Egan’s story “War Rugs” won the Robert Watson Literary Prize and appears in The Greensboro Review 107.

EVAN FACKLER: First of all, Brendan, congratulations on winning the Robert Watson Literary Prize in fiction for “War Rugs.” It’s a tremendous story, ambitious and affecting both in terms of imagination and formal experimentation, which is something that drew my co-editor Patricia and I to it early on in the reading period. Have you written stories like this before?

BRENDAN EGAN: Thank you so much! I’m really honored by the recognition and so happy to see the story in Greensboro Review.

I’ve always been excited about both form and imaginative literature. Most of my stories splice threads of mythology and folklore into more or less realistic lives, and this splicing often calls attention to the formal moves that shape the narrative. But I think “War Rugs” is the first story where I’ve directly mixed genres in just this way—inserting pieces of scripts into fiction. I studied playwriting and screenwriting before writing fiction, so I often think of scenes in those terms, but the idea of actually incorporating these genres into prose probably came from reading Vi Khi Nao’s A Fish in Exile and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which use similar techniques, though I think to slightly different effects.

EF: There’s a great deal of fun to “War Rugs”—this sense of an entire social world embedded in the language being deployed, for instance (buttonheads versus dogfaces, Oriental versus Occidental). But this is also a story that’s taking on some pretty serious issues. Cultural identity, exile, war, prejudice. I don’t want to ask the vulgar question “where’d you get this idea?” but I am wondering if there were particular issues or events you were thinking about while you were writing?

BE: The concept of a story about magazine crews literally showed up at my door multiple times over, say, a three-year span. They weren’t selling the magazines so much as the good feeling that comes from contributing to a school fundraiser or a GoFundMe or buying a pair of Toms. Talking to these kids got me thinking about the way that personal hardship has increasingly become this sort of commodity in and of itself.

Kind of in counterpoint to this, I was trying to work out this “Death of the West”-type paranoia that has come into the mainstream through Alt-Right politics. As a blatant example, a couple months ago, the draft of an executive order was leaked from the Trump administration titled “Making Federal Buildings Great Again.” It says things like, “Federal architecture should once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance” by sticking to the tradition of Classical principals. Really, I’ve been more bewildered and impugned by how Doric columns are still the fascist’s binkie of choice.

Of course, the bugaboo of these same paranoiacs is the migrant. Though the refugees and asylum seekers we talk about in our United States are typically coming from other places in the world, the populations that most inspired the characterization Cynocephali in the story are Afghans who have been displaced in the succession of U.S. involved wars for the last forty years. But I don’t see these characters as a direct representation of any one group from the real world as much as a representation of the lasting misunderstanding between “East” and “West” that goes back at least as far as Ctesias’s own account of the territory east of Persia.

EF: Okay. Cynocephali are mentioned by Ctesias in the Indica, which answers the question the Classics professor we recruited to help us with the Greek in the epigraph asked. (For the record, that question was: “Where in the #@$*! did you come across the Cynocephali?”) So let me pivot a little and say that for the month or so after first reading “War Rugs” in the “slush” pile (which sounds like a dirty word as I write it—maybe we should call it the “mine” or something because it’s where the gold comes from) Patricia and I went down an internet rabbit hole of “Dog Face” songs, which ends up being its own sub-genre. Phish. The Eels. Some guy called Ryan Dawson who has an entire album called “Dog-Face Girl”… maybe there are more. I guess what I’m saying is that if you were a guest on my favorite NPR show, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and I was filling in for Peter Sagal, I would say, “We’ve invited you here today, Brendan, to play a game we’re calling…” and then Bill Kurtis would say, in that mellifluous voice of his, “Eenie meenie miny moe, catch a dog face by his toe,” or something like that, and then I’d ask you trivia about The Eels.

But really, why Cynocephali?

BE: Is it too weird to say that I’m so glad you, too, have become a little obsessed?

So, in describing what he called India, Ctesias introduced a number of concepts of “natural history” to the Western imagination.  Some are accurate: parrots, falcon-assisted hunting, Indian elephants. Others are not: unicorns, manticores, river serpents, various magical wells and springs.

I’ve written some stories about a bunch of these, but the Cynocephali have always been the invention of his that most captured my fascination. For like two-thousand years, they were used as a literary authenticator for Europeans traveling in the East. Alexander claims to have captured them, Marco Polo describes their supposed settlements, and Columbus writes that he was told rumors of them in present day Haiti. St. Augustine uses them as a kind of inquiry into the definition of a human soul. The irony is that as early as the first century BC, Ctesias was thought of as a rube who presented all these second-hand yarns as fact (I’m pretty sure he was just a trickster).

In popular culture, the unicorn persists, the manticore persists, but dog-headedness kind of explodes from the middle-ages on, being applied to all kinds of outgroups and raising all kinds of questions about human dignity. Anyway, the insistence on “I saw the Cynocephali” serves as this acute example of a Classical text surviving despite itself and introducing a fundamental “othering” that we still tussle with today.

EF: Something that’s really consistent and lovely here is the way Zylina’s sensory experience of the world imbues the narrative. I’m guessing most of your stories are about us regular “button heads” and our boringly dulled senses. What was it like to write in close-third from Zylina’s perspective? Were there challenges to writing in her point-of-view?

BE: It was a lot of fun trying to imagine how a person with a dog’s hearing and smell paired with a human mind would experience the world. Particularly in moments of emotional intensity, I attempted to focus description on these senses because they are primary to canid anatomy, taking precedence over the visual sense that usually takes the lead in “buttonhead” perception.

The real challenge to writing from Zylina’s perspective was honoring the refugee experience that I haven’t had any personal access to. I wanted to avoid clichés of immigrant kid’s lives while maintaining the reality of aspirational parents, cultural ignorance in their adopted homeland, and the baggage of geopolitics that they are expected to represent. I don’t think I would have attempted this without the relative freedom of the mythopoeic space opened up by Ctesias’s inventions in the Indica.

EF: You’ve mentioned work by Ctesias and Vi Khi Nao. Were there other writers or works you thought about while you were writing “War Rugs”? In particular, I’m thinking about what you just said about trying to honor the refugee experience as a person who doesn’t have that experience. This is also a bigger question about writing across difference and representing the experience of others, I guess. How did you approach that challenge for “War Rugs”? Were there things or motifs you were conscious of trying to avoid?

BE: Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Barthelme’s story “Paraguay,” some stories from Jim Crace’s Continent, some from Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours, are a few of the pieces that I’ve been thinking about, particularly the way they handle slippery ideas regarding the way the West frames place and culture.

In order to get more insight on the life of migrants from Central Asia and the Subcontinent, I’ve read mostly reportage, but some of Jamil Jan Kochai’s stories and non-fiction writing have given me some particular insights on Afghan-American kids to draw from.

Things I wanted to avoid in Zylina’s story were religious extremism, helplessness, and the inability to adapt to youth culture. Media depictions of refugees often focus on the sensational and the pitiful, flattening people into endure-ers of suffering rather than full actors in their own right. For me, the best way to approach a character so unlike myself was to stay grounded in the more mundane motives that make up our shared humanity and guide most of our decision-making on a moment-by-moment basis. Zylina is a teenager. She wants love, fun, friends, independence—these aren’t culturally bound desires; they’re human ones.

EF: The ancient Greek thing runs throughout here, certainly we see it in terms of character names (Themestius, Zylina, etc.) and the Cynocephali themselves, but it’s also woven into the fabric of the story. Some early conversations I remember having with you were about formatting, since the story includes various sorts of scripts and, in an early version, several fonts and even a recipe. What Patricia and I hadn’t put together early on, though, was that the ending script is actually a Socratic Dialogue. You had to cue us in on that. Are there other nods toward Ancient Greek texts or sources that might otherwise escape the casual reader’s notice?

BE: The only specific text that I had in mind was Ctesias’s, but throughout the story, I see Zylina’s adventures as inquiries into virtue ethics of the kind that preoccupied Classical Greek philosophers. She’s realizing that like all of us, she lives in a world that’s short on justice (despite high rhetoric), but she’s trying hard to figure out what it means to live a good life.

EF: Lastly, we’re corresponding in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic—which would certainly be affecting Zylina’s door-to-door sales if the action in “War Rugs” was happening now. How are you and your family holding up? Do you think we’re going to see a lot of quarantine stories pop up over the next year-or-so, in the pages of The New Yorker maybe?

BE: Shockingly, I’ve gotten two door-to-door pitches in the last week. One for an exterminator and another for solar panels. The sales people stood back a respectful six feet from the house, but still!

My wife, Stacy, and I are merely keeping two children under two years old alive. In whatever time we have left, we are teaching courses online, pecking at writing and related projects, and maybe squeezing in an episode of Devs before bed. My social-distancing book stack is just three deep for right now: my wife’s revised novel manuscript, and two by Jim Crace, Quarantine and The Pesthouse. I don’t have great confidence that I’ll get through all of them any time soon.

I suppose that some people are writing their pandemic stories as we speak. There’s a temptation for literature to keep pace with the hot-take media cycle, but I’m lukewarm on that at best. I think it takes time to titrate these events and pull something valuable from them. But then I’m writing about characters introduced in around 400 BC, so what do I know?

 

Evan Fackler is an MFA candidate in fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he lives with his wife and their cat, Zadie. His reviews and interviews can be found at Entropy Magazine and storySouth.

Editor Emeritus Feature: A Conversation with Sarah Bailey & Anna Blake Keeley

The debut issue of quip literary review is now available online. Cofounders/coeditors Sarah Bailey and Anna Blake Keeley (formerly of The Greensboro Review staff) discuss how they got started, what sets quip apart, and what they hope to do next.

 

GR: What other publications did you have in mind as you launched quip literary review–which lit mags or other platforms influenced how you shaped your own creation?

We had several other publications in mind when creating quip. We were both big fans of Tin House (RIP) and I think that influenced some of quip in terms of the kinds of work we like to read, how we want to create something that has an aesthetic, and that feels special when you read it. And of course, working together on The Greensboro Review taught us so much about running and editing a journal.

GR: How would you describe the quip aesthetic and approach? What type of decisions did you have to make around medium, images, content, appearance, etc.? What sets you apart from other publications?

I think the word that best sums us up is millennial. This not only applies to our aesthetic and audience, but almost every decision we end up making. What does it mean to be of this generation? What are the ways our audience likes to communicate and interact? Where is our time best spent?

We wanted a clean, easy-to-read look but with specifically millennial elements (notice the pink color and font choices.) Our medium is the website, which makes it fairly accessible. We don’t have a paywall and or subscriptions. We just want as many people to read quip as possible. We’re trying to find ways to bring down submission costs to make submitting more accessible as well, and we’re brainstorming ways to pay contributors. It’s a challenge but we’re committed to it.

We made decisions on every single aspect of this magazine, seen and unseen. From the amount of margin space on the PDF issues (we like room for notes and thumbs!) to the way the dropdown menus are organized to the way we format certain words, we thought about everything.

As far as what sets us apart, I think the feedback we’ve had from authors is how collaborative we are compared to other mags. We want to make sure the stories reflect their intent and be as great as they can be. We’re also one of the few online magazines with print capability. We have our stories formatted in two different ways—on webpages and in a downloadable PDF. This PDF allows the issue to be read on other devices, with or without internet access, and it can be printed in a more traditional and easy-to-read format should someone choose to. It prevents lots of extra printing on our end, but can still give readers the tactile experience if wanted.

GR: What does your behind-the-scenes work as editors look like? How do you tend to divide the work, and how do you juggle quip tasks with your other non-lit mag jobs/responsibilities?

I’m not going to lie, it’s tough! Lit magazines are a ton of work, even small ones like ours. Just when you think you have a handle on the workload, something else comes up or there’s one element you didn’t think about that’s suddenly a problem. Anna Blake and I both work full time marketing jobs, which take up a lot of our time. Unfortunately, quip isn’t a profitable endeavor, so we’re really in it for the love of stories and editing. We divide the work pretty evenly. AB tackles most of our social media and I handle website posting and any coding we need. We both read each story that comes in and vote through Submittable and we both edit each story. We start by splitting up the stories, then making our suggestions, then switching and reviewing and editing the other stories, before sending off to the authors. It’s a really collaborative process from all sides.

GR: How long did it take from first conception of quip to the fall 2019 issue? What did you ultimately need to get this first issue of quip off the ground (e.g., in terms of any physical resources, connections, your own skills/experience/emotional bandwidth)?

It took us a little over a year and a half, I think, from conception to publication. We had the idea during the final semester at UNCG, and then we both had hectic summers moving and starting new jobs, but by the fall of 2018 we were pretty committed to starting it. So we had to make a plan and come up with a name and buy a domain and decide on a content management system. We knew printing wasn’t going to be a possibility just because of cost—we aren’t independently wealthy or tied to an institution, so it’s difficult to start a print magazine without a lot of capital up front.

There are a lot of small infrastructural decisions that you have to make before you can even begin accepting submissions. Which is why it took us so long to get the issue out. We wanted to make sure it was professional and authors felt comfortable submitting their work to us. New lit magazines start up every day and last an issue or fail before launch. We see it constantly on social media.

GR: What do you hope to do in future issues of quip?

I think the first thing we’re looking to do is to start paying contributors. We want to do it without pulling more from our own pockets—the magazine needs to be relatively self-sustaining to a certain degree. But stories are valuable and we want to show authors appreciate their work. So we’re brainstorming a few different ideas.

GR: What advice would you share with those interested in starting a lit mag or other publication of their own?

Don’t start a magazine with people you’re friends with unless you’re also of similar editorial minds! There are tons of friends whose opinions we respect, whose work we admire, and whom we would never want to run a lit magazine with. You have to both want the same kinds of work and see similar fixes within stories and have the same editorial mission. You’re not always going to agree on everything, or someone will miss something that the other will catch, but there’s such an element of trust that you have to have or the magazine just won’t work.

I’d also say, get some of your own work published first. It’s so helpful to know what it’s like on the other side, but publishing also provides you with several different approaches to the process. How much developmental editing do you want to do? What kinds of publication agreements are out there? How often should you be in communication with authors? How do you want to inform them of acceptance? There are so many different ways to move through the process, and just knowing about the ways other literary magazines do things can give you invaluable perspective.

“Potential for miracles, catastrophe, and everyday amazement”: An Interview with Sarah Heying

Sarah Heying has fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in Broken Pencil, The Chariton Review, Ellipsis, Kestrel, and online at Bitch. She is currently working toward her PhD at the University of Mississippi. Heying’s new story, “The Chair Kickers’ Tale,” received the Robert Watson Literary Prize and appears in the Greensboro Review 105.

Rose Himber Howse: Your story begins with a fable of sorts, which (along with the title and your use of archaic syntax in certain moments) sets up the expectation that we are reading a fairy tale. I loved the juxtaposition of that mood with the dialogue, which is hyper-realist and modern, and the general content, which I’d describe, probably badly, as being mostly concerned with delineating the minutiae of manual labor and of generally getting by in the world. The fact that I found this contrast so jarring led me to interrogate my own assumptions about which spheres I associate with the possibility of wonder and which I don’t, which was uncomfortable in a productive way. What relationship do these two supposed opposites—the magical and the mundane—have for you?

Sarah Heying: I think you described it perfectly. I recently read this fantastic book, The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh. In it, he talks about how the word “improbable” is not the opposite of “probable,” but instead an inflection upon it. He argues that the modern novel sought to distinguish itself from literature of the fantastical or unbelievable by hiding exceptional moments under fillers of specific detail—sort of this representational scene-building that rationalizes the world to a place of few surprises.

Many of us grow up reading literature full of surprises, but then we’re encouraged to “grow out of it” in favor of more serious, realistic literature that’s supposedly more representative of the way we supposedly live. But life constantly surprises me, scares me, awes me, confuses me, and then I write a story to try to understand that sense my wonder a bit better, and I try to do so without rationalizing it into a manageable box of certainty. Storytelling, for me, is not a purely representational art. It’s an exploratory art full of potential for miracles, catastrophe, and everyday amazement.

RHH: “The Chair Kickers’ Tale” doesn’t really have any women in it, which I didn’t question at all on first read. Statistically, it seems accurate in a story about five people who do tough physical labor and one big boss. But in chatting with you during your acceptance phone call, you mentioned that you actually worked as a Chair Kicker in a coliseum. Given that you experienced this as a woman, I’m curious how you ended up with the model for the story that you did: a portrayal of male brotherhood that feels so evocative in how it encompasses both crassness and tenderness.

SH: When I stepped into that job at the Coliseum, I was immediately and frequently reminded that I had entered a men’s space and that hiring me was a bit of an experiment. During my first month, one of my main duties was to check all of the mouse traps and dispose of their little dead bodies because they thought that job needed “a woman’s attention to detail.” Then they started letting me put up the pipe and drape and apply the linens and table skirts, and then, after at least a month, they let me start setting up chairs and building stages, basketball floors, etc. While I was working there I also took a part time job selling beauty products, so I had to switch between these two extremely gendered spheres on a daily basis. It was a very formative to my own gender identity as a lil’ baby butch lesbian to feel both a part of and apart from both of these spaces.

I actually started the first draft of this story while I was still working at the Coliseum, and from the beginning, it didn’t include any women. Though many of the original characters I wrote didn’t make the final cut, Benny was always there as sort of an outsider figure. I feared that if I had made Benny a woman—even a butch lesbian woman—it would be too easy to read his outsider status as some kind of essentialized gender difference rather than as a difference in expression of masculinity.

RHH: We all believe we’d never sell out our friends for money and perks, and yet when most of us are put to the test—well, the world we’re living in is a pretty clear indication of what can happen. I think political fiction is totally vital and also teeming with potential missteps: the possibility for being didactic, condescending, etc. These are all pitfalls that we thought you avoided gracefully in the story, which despite its literal simplicity arcs toward a real moral complexity. Do you conceptualize your work as political? What are the consequences of doing so?

SH: Well thank you for the compliment! This story became more political as I continued to work with it because I’ve become less and less hesitant about directly addressing structures of power (state and otherwise) that attempt to govern every single aspect of our lives. I don’t think it’s possible to write literature that isn’t political—some politics are just less visible because they’re more readily accepted as facts of life. While I’m of the belief that the best literature embraces nuance, I also feel that it’s dangerous to try to hide from the forces and institutions that attempt to beat the nuance out of us.

RHH: One of my former professors loved to talk about the imitative fallacy, and I think you avoid it expertly here, in that the story delineates monotony without being monotonous. You also eschew the opposite extreme, romanticizing physical labor. I think your innovative use of the first person collective is key here, and for me as a reader, the most effective part of this point of view choice is, paradoxically, when the story abandons it. Phil’s trip to the boss’s office represents a fragmentation that’s sad and inevitable, and when the collective voice resumes, it’s forever fractured. Is this aligned with what your intentions were for the point of view? And I also wonder how you think the present tense, which tends to get a bad rap, factors in here.

SH: Oh Lord, I feel so thankful for everyone who suffered through and offered feedback on my bloated, monotonous early drafts. It took me a really, really long time to develop this first person plural to where it is now. It’s such a demanding POV that can quickly grow tiresome for readers, and in many of my earlier drafts it was much more of a “royal we” than a true collective voice. But it was so important to me to get it as close to right as possible to convey the double-edged sword of collectivity—the way a “we” can be inclusive and empowering, or, just as easily, exclusive and controlling. And the present tense seemed like the only way to write this story about people who are boxed into a particular moment that feels immediate yet also repetitive. I imagine most of these guys as breaking from the collective-present at the end of the work day when they leave the Coliseum behind, but jumping right back into it at the start of a new shift. If I’d narrated in past tense, I’d have taken the crew out of the self-enclosed loop that’s so fundamental to the setting and the story. When Phil breaks from this loop for a moment, the “we” fractures, but it doesn’t crumble—it corrects itself and jumps back into rhythm, leaving Phil behind. My hope is that it’s not clear to readers whether this is a good or a bad thing.

 

Rose Himber Howse is a recent graduate of the MFA program in fiction at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she served as fiction editor of The Greensboro Review. Her first published work of fiction is forthcoming from Sonora Review. Before graduate school, she taught reading to teenagers and adults.

Interview with Richard Moriarty, Fiction Editor

Richard Moriarty just finished his second year in the MFA program at UNC Greensboro. He’s originally from Kansas City. He went to University of Miami (the Florida one) for undergrad, where he studied advertising. He’s working on a collection of stories tentatively titled River Runners. Books currently on his nightstand: The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and Run the Red Lights by Ed Skoog.

Evan Fackler: You’re a wizard at the compact ten-page story, and yet we’ve chatted before about your admiration for The Art of Fielding, a novel that does for baseball what Moby Dick did for whaling. Do you have any interest in writing—I’m not going to say a “novel” but let’s just say, “a longer work of fictional prose narrative”?

Richard Moriarty: Haha, I appreciate that! I have to admit, though, I’ve gotten a little self-conscious about my difficulties with writing anything longer than ten pages. But it may just be that the stories I’ve been working on are better suited for the shorter form. I loved The Art of Fielding, and I think I read it at just the right time, a time when I was still very much obsessed with baseball and just starting to get interested in writing fiction of my own. It’s a great novel, but yeah, I don’t know if I would recommend it to someone who doesn’t already watch and admire baseball.

To be honest, it’s hard for me to imagine myself writing a novel. While Chad Harbach’s book got me really thinking about trying to write, I didn’t actually start doing the thing writers must do—making writing part of their daily routine—until I fell in love with short stories. I loved how funny Lorrie Moore’s stories were, how weird George Saunders’s were, how Elizabeth McCracken’s stories could offer all the complexities that I expected from novels. Maybe my approach will change as I develop as a writer, but for now I’m solely focused on writing short stories as well as I can.

EF: What are some of the most frustrating correspondences you’ve handled for the GR? I mean, things writers submitting to magazines or corresponding with editors should avoid doing?

RM: I think we were really lucky over the past year to work with writers who weren’t just excellent short story writers but also great people to embark on the editorial process with. I’m sure I tested multiple authors’ patience with all sorts of requests: delete a comma here and add an em dash there, cut a well-written description of setting because of a repetition, write a new sentence that adds greater clarity about a character’s past. The only thing that irritated me was when an author would overlook or misinterpret a step in the back-and-forth communication of the editorial process. It’s a lengthy affair and sometimes a complex one—with multiple rounds of editorial suggestions for a given story after we’ve accepted it—so it’s understandable for an author to miss one component of it. All this is to say that every journal’s process is different and it’s important to keep that in mind when working with editors on your story.

EF: Every semester GR editors put out a call for volunteers for something called “Bartlebying.” What the heck is that?

RM: Good ol’ proofreading! We partner up and read each story out loud to one another, many times over. After three or four hours of this, my mind is pretty much useless and it’s time for lunch and/or a nap. That said, I’ve found Bartlebying to be very useful for us. I’m always surprised at how many copy-editing changes come to light during this process.

EF: Do you have any absolute favorite stories you’ve gotten to publish?

RM: Dang, that’s a tough question. We accepted nine stories over the past year and I really do love each one. Some things that jump out at me as I look back are: the way Nick Brown’s “A Fundraiser” reveals another quirky detail each time I re-read it; the intricacies of character in Sharon Solwitz’s “Violation”; Sarah Heying’s risk-taking in “The Chair Kickers’ Tale” with regards to voice and narrative structure.

EF: FAQ – Is The Greensboro Review only for previously published writers?

RM: One of my main goals as an editor is to look beyond the author’s experience level and solely evaluate the quality of the story in front of me. We’ve published debut fiction as well as work from past contributors to Best American Short Stories. I think that’s something really cool about the short story—every single submission presents something new and has the chance to surprise us, delight us, or haunt us for weeks after reading it.

 

Evan Fackler is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. You can find him on Twitter @evanchilli

Interview with Michael Pittard, Poetry Editor

Michael Pittard is a second-year MFA student at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His poems and reviews have appeared in such publications as Tupelo Quarterly and Red Flag Poetry. He lives in Greensboro with his cat, Roosevelt.

“‘Now the one thing you have to promise, Rudy, is that you never joke about this. Flying saucers are like religion. You’ve got to be solemn.’” 

Evan Fackler: That’s from Thomas Disch’s “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or, A Shameless Lie,” a story about a writer cajoled into penning a fallacious UFO memoir that takes on a reality of its own. You’re an aficionado of alien abduction stories yourself—a curiosity you explore in your poetry. What’s the fascination there for you?

Michael Pittard: I’ve always been fascinated by the stories people tell themselves. People who think they have been abducted by aliens, people who believe in Bigfoot, people who think the world is flat; they all are trying to process information or events the best way they know how. My fascination comes from my desire to understand why these stories mean so much to them, why believing them and then being ostracized for that belief is worth it. In my poetry about aliens (or Bigfoot, or Flat Earth), I hope to open up space in a genre that sometimes tries to keep itself aloof and above “low-brow” culture for poems about topics that people didn’t know poetry is able to tackle. Plus, that tiniest possibility that it’s all true, that aliens exist, is impossible to resist. We all want the wildest stories to be real, so I hope to make them a little more real anyway I can.

EF: You’ve been thanked by writers on Twitter before for calling them to let them know their work has been accepted at The Greensboro Review. Mostly, of course, we’re used to receiving acceptances and rejections through email, our phone lines being primarily reserved for grandparents and scammers. Are people usually surprised to be talking to an editor on the phone in the middle of the day?

MP: People usually are! We don’t only reach out to people over the phone; it depends on the information they provide us and whether we think calling them over the phone will be the best way to reach them. But by even considering calling them separates The Greensboro Review from other journals. We do a mix of old and new here; we still take mailed submissions even though the bulk of what we read comes in through Submittable. It’s always great to talk to somebody where they can hear the inflections of your voice. It helps the editing process start off on the right foot. We all, as editors and poets, want what’s best for the poem, and establishing that trust is crucial in achieving that goal.

EF: You make it a point to visit used bookstores wherever you are. Any hidden gems out there book tourists should know about?

MP: Oh there are so many good used bookstores everywhere. Books wind up on those shelves that even the owners forget they have. I once visited the grave of the Venerable Bede in Durham, England. Bede, an 8th century monk, is considered to be the father of English history, and in a 3-story used book store in Durham (where the aisles were as narrow as possible) I found an old copy of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and when I bought it the owner was astounded I had found it. As for stores in the US, I love McKay’s in Greensboro, which I have been visiting ever since I could read. I also discovered Bridge Street Books in DC, which has an amazing literary criticism and poetry section on its second floor.

EF: FAQ – To paraphrase Edwin Starr: 

Cover letters, huh, yeah, 

what are they good for?

Do you have any advice for those of us on the other side of the submission process who are maybe unsure of what our cover letters should be doing or saying?

MP: Cover letters are always hard to nail down, because the temptation is there to explain your work or justify it somehow. I’m not entirely against all attempts to make sure we as editors understand the context of your poems, but the more explanation you give, the more expectations I have of the work. And by expectations, I don’t mean higher standards, I just mean that I know something about the poems I didn’t know before, and it changes how I read them. I like it best when authors tell me the number of poems they are submitting, the titles, and a brief (like one sentence) description of the project, if there is one. But writers should trust their work to stand on its own! It usually does.

EF: Last question. 2018 was a weird year for poetry. On the one hand—and you’ve responded to this before—there’s been some noise that Instagram “saved” poetry (from what, it’s unclear). On the other hand, we’ve seen a lot more high-profile controversy swirling around the poetry community (events at The Nation early last Fall, for instance, or some fairly high profile discussions around plagiarism in “After” poems more recently). Putting aside any specific cases, why do you think poetry has become a locus for these discussions? What’s ahead for the poetry world in 2019?

MP: 2018 was definitely a weird year for poetry. I think I saw more articles stating that poetry is flourishing now more than ever, but the only justification for that headline was the increase in total book sales, not in the number of distinct books or poets. Still, an increase in book sales is always promising! We don’t have to save poetry from obscurity. People will always read poetry, but it is important that we direct people to new types and voices in poetry whenever we can. Even when someone recommends reading “classic poetry,” we do so to make sure the new poetry reader has the context to read what contemporary poets are reacting to or against. And we can’t be disdainful of where people start their poetry journey, or even of where they end it. Any poem has the potential to change someone’s life, even if it’s the only poem they ever read. It doesn’t matter if it’s “Instagram poetry” or John Ashbery.

As for why poetry becomes a locus for these discussions, I believe it’s because poetry is seen as both simple and complex at the same time. Poems are typically short, which means we’re supposed to get them much sooner than a novel. But schools also teach students that poems are also speaking in code to a different audience, and you won’t ever understand poems until you understand that code. It’s all hogwash, but it’s hogwash that plays on the poet’s desire to always be saying something important and deadly serious. Poetry as code is incredibly anti-egalitarian and elitist. Trust your first emotional response to a poem! But that desire to be meaningful gets in the way of letting other people speak too, which is a problem many areas of public life experience. Giving more people the chance to speak isn’t taking away your own right to speak. It just means you have to actually listen to them! I hope that this year in poetry is when poets and critics start to realize that more people writing all types of poetry is a great thing that portends an amazing future for the genre.

 

Evan Fackler is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. You can find him on Twitter @evanchilli

Interview with Rose Himber Howse, Fiction Editor

Rose Himber Howse is a current MFA candidate in fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her nonfiction and interviews have been featured on Dead Darlings, GrubStreet Boston’s site for novelists. She is currently at work on her first novel, The Stones They Broke, a queer Appalachian story. Before pursuing her MFA, she taught high school English and adult literacy.

Evan Fackler: Rose, you’re one of two fiction editors at The Greensboro Review. Do you and Richard [Moriarty, the other editor] usually agree on which stories to publish? 

Rose Himber Howse: Generally, yes. Looking at our respective styles as writers, you wouldn’t expect there to be as much overlap in our preferences as there is, and I like to think that’s testament to our general open-mindedness when it comes to a story’s right to dictate its own terms.

We can sometimes be attracted to different things when we’re reading the slush pile, but in these situations, we often make a pretty effective case to the other person for a story that they might have overlooked. It’s funny, actually–occasionally one of us will be championing a story the other has doubts about, and the next day the roles will reverse because we’ve done such a good job convincing each other.

Ultimately, stories with a strong voice tend to stand out for both of us. He’s more of a minimalist, which tends to be a good editorial predilection, and he always appreciates sharp dialogue whereas I can have a tin ear. I’m probably pickier about surprise–I hate when I can predict the next thing that will happen in a story.

EF: When you’re reading through fiction submissions, are there particular things you’re looking for? Specific characteristics or strengths you want to see in a piece for The Greensboro Review?

RHH: People always say that you should read a journal before submitting to get a feel for its style. And while I certainly hope submitters will read The Greensboro Review, I think that the beauty of a journal run by MFA students is that the editors change regularly, which means that personal preferences don’t limit the aesthetic of the journal.

The most obvious form that this sort of bias can take relates to a journal’s orientation toward experimental work, and I can confidently say that The Greensboro Review doesn’t come down on either side of this. If psychological realism and a traditional plot structure aren’t the best way to tell a story, that’s great; if they are, that’s fine too.

Our editorial process is intensive and collaborative. Having conversations with writers about how to edit in service of their vision is my favorite part of the job. Because we do subscribe to this particular process, we’re more willing than some magazines to take a story that might be imperfect yet more memorable and unique than a different, “cleaner” story. When I’m at home chopping onions or something and I find myself still thinking about a character, that’s usually a very strong indicator that I’m going to advocate for that submission.

EF: If you could give some blanket advice to writers based on your experience on the editorial side of things, what would that advice be?

RHH: Put a story in your story! It sounds really obvious, I know. But the most common reason I stop reading is that the opening feels bloated with exposition. That doesn’t mean that the first page needs a high-speed car chase–just that it needs to establish momentum for the story in the present. While it can be realistic for a character to have had a wounding event earlier in life that informs the present action, I’d rather learn about this through its impact on the present than through a frontloading of summary.

Every now and then, there’s a story with a compelling premise, but language that doesn’t excite or invigorate; however, the inverse is much more common: sentences that are stronger individually than the narrative that they make up.

Not that we’re looking for stories that read like action movies.  One of my favorite pieces in the last issue, “The Stone Lawn,” is about the interaction between an elderly man and his neighbor over lawn maintenance. It’s very quiet and very interior, and it does make use of flashback. But there’s an incredibly strong sense of underlying tension, and so it really moves.

EF: FAQ: Should I send my erotica to The Greensboro Review

RHH: Probably not. But never say never? Sex and sensuality are great if they’re in service of a narrative arc. Just please, if you are a man and your protagonist is a woman, don’t have her describe herself the way a catcaller might describe her (i.e.: “I looked down at my bodacious rack”). This has been weirdly common lately!

EF: Last question: let’s say you’re trapped on a desert island by Sycorax, Caliban’s bad-ass witch mother, and the only way off is through a literary barter. What novel or short story collection would you entice Sycorax with in exchange for safe passage off the island?

RHH: This won’t be news to anyone, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. While I think that magical writing doesn’t necessarily need to have a purpose beyond magic itself (for me, enchantment is enough of a reason to read) her collection really taught me how fabulism can be used to delineate emotional truths. I’m thinking in particular of the story “Real Women Have Bodies,” in which women are becoming invisible and nobody cares. It’s almost too obvious, but there’s nothing obvious about the artistry with which it’s executed.

So much of both the horror and the beauty in the collection are inextricable from Machado’s exploration of what it means to be a woman–often a queer woman–in the world. And I’m amazed at the book’s ability to hold those two forces (horror and beauty) in the same hand, acknowledging that they feed each other as much they negate each other. I think Sycorax would agree.

 

Evan Fackler is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. You can find him on Twitter @evanchilli

Interview with Jabar Boykin, Poetry Editor

Jabar Boykin is from Greensboro, NC and is currently getting his MFA in poetry at UNCG. His poetry primarily centers around his Black American heritage of which he seeks to create new narratives and mythologies from past tragedies and traditions. After earning an MFA in Poetry, Boykin intends to pursue a PhD in African American Literature. He is a current poetry editor for The Greensboro Review.

Evan Fackler: By all accounts you maintain a pretty busy work schedule, working multiple jobs while you’ve been in school. Where do you find the energy and time for your own poetry? 

Jabar Boykin: I actually write mostly during the time I should be sleeping, so like around 1-2 am, but this is also the time I feel like I do my best writing. I tend to get distracted during the day really easily so it’s hard for me to focus on coming up with ideas I think are creative enough to turn into poems.

EF: Has your editorial work at The Greensboro Review informed anything about your own writing or writing process?

JB: It has made me take a second look at my own poetry. When editing, it’s so nice to have a clean poem that doesn’t need any work or at least needs as little work as possible, so it’s most definitely made me go back and tidy up poems that I now understand to be a little messy for publications.

EF: Poetry and fiction submissions to The Greensboro Review have to make it past two editors in each genre, plus Terry Kennedy and Jessie Van Rheenen. Is everyone typically in agreement about what to publish? How much back-and-forth discussion do you have over the typical acceptance? 

JB: For Michael and I there hasn’t been too much disagreement, and the few occasions that there have been we usually let Terry act as the tiebreaker. However, there are moments where maybe we’ve had biases toward a poem for whatever reason and in that final process when we meet with Terry and break the poem down line by line we’ll usually see things in discussion that we didn’t see before when we were just sitting at our desk reading. It’s really interesting what you miss and what everyone else is seeing that you’ve not paid attention to. I think moments like that also sharpen your awareness of your own poetry as well.

EF: You’re mentioned under the Wikipedia entry for the pantoum: “Jabar Boykin wrote a well-received pantoum,” the entry reads, with no citation. Have you written a well-received pantoum?

JB: The story behind that is actually pretty funny; we were assigned, in our Structure of Verse class last semester, to write a pantoum so I decided to just revise one that I was already working on for my thesis. Long story short, Stuart ended up really enjoying it and also mentioned that he had written this very famous pantoum that he’d received a lot of accolades for, so the rest of the class, unknown to me at the time, decided to write in Wikipedia that I had written a “well-received pantoum” as well. When I found out it was hilarious to me because my work has never been published, but I also felt really honored at the same time that they would do that.

EF: FAQ – Is The Greensboro Review interested in publishing a particular kind of poet? 

JB: I can’t speak to past editors that have come before me but I don’t feel there’s anything in particular that Terry, Michael, or I look for other than for the poem to be skillful, thoughtful, and engaging. Me personally, I like poems that take a lot of risk; that feeling you get when you’re reading a poem and it seems that it could all fall apart at any moment, but then you’re at the end and somehow all the elements managed to hold together is priceless. Those are the poems I like the most.

 

Evan Fackler is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. You can find him on Twitter @evanchilli

Interview with Emily Morris, Managing Editor

Emily Morris won Honorable Mention in the 2018 NC State Fiction Contest and has work forthcoming in Reservoir Journal. Originally from Charlottesville, VA, Morris is currently at work on a short story collection focusing on issues of family and class in rural Southern America. She is the 2018-2019 managing editor of The Greensboro Review.

Evan Fackler: Emily, you’re the managing editor of The Greensboro Review. What’s an average day-in-the-life of a managing editor like? What is it that a managing editor does?

Emily Morris: The majority of my role here is to attend to production. I also format the poems and stories, convert them into our house style, and, once the order is decided, format the issue and prepare it for print. A “day in the life” changes according to where we are on the production schedule, which is something I appreciate—I’m not stuck doing one task for too long. We all kind of change pace as the stories and poems roll closer to our print deadline. In the beginning, I’m going through all the submissions, seeing if we have previous submitters, logging their subscriptions to our journal, etc. After the editors narrow down their selections, I do a lot more with the physical stories in InDesign and editing them according to what the fiction and poetry editors have decided. There’s a lot of back-and-forth with the authors.

EF: The stories of yours I’ve had the opportunity to read evoke setting in powerful ways, conjuring issues of class in rural American towns through things like language and image. Sometimes, just a character’s affect seems to enrich your settings. Is there a particular interplay between place and character that you’re conscious of trying to capture when you write? Is that sensibility something you look for in the poetry or fiction you help select for the GR?

EM: Much of my identity is embedded in the area of Virginia that I grew up in and is certainly at the forefront of my stories. I’m very interested in the effects of place on character, especially in settings where it seems stagnation has set in, where no one really leaves, or even knows how to anymore. I’ve noticed, as these stories come together in my thesis, that there’s always a sentimentality in the character for that place he or she is from. When I weigh in, I try not to favor a story that’s interested in those things just because I am, but I think there’s something to be said of stories in which the setting matters so much that it can be antagonistic in the narrative. In fact, in our upcoming issue there are a few stories where place really does play a big part in how the characters feel, and their resulting actions.

EF: Michael Parker [a fiction faculty member at UNCG] is fond of saying that the major divisions in this country aren’t regional but rural/urban. Do you think of your stories as investigating specifically regional concerns, or as speaking to a reality embedded in a larger rural/urban divide that might transcend the specificity of place?

EM: I hope my stories do surpass regional concerns. All of my pieces are positioned in a small area of the rural southeast because that’s where I grew up and that’s what I know. I try to make my stories feel lived in—give them an authenticity that I couldn’t necessarily obtain by writing about a different area with similar issues. I think, though, that many rural areas are similar in terms of education, political orientation, religion, and race, and that they generally lean pretty opposite of more urban areas. So, yeah, I think about Michael Parker’s statement a lot, and it’s a statement I had never considered before coming to this MFA program. I hope that when I write about rural class issues, it resonates with everyone, because everyone falls on one side or the other.

EF: Are there lessons you’ve learned working on the editorial side of things that have helped your own writing? Or vice-versa: writing lessons you’ve transferred to your editing work?

EM: Editorial work has helped me learn to take rejections a little more easily, because now I’ve seen the hundreds of entries we get each go-around while only having space for a handful of stories and poems. There’s also the different tiers of rejections, which is something I hadn’t been very familiar with in the past. The difference between form rejections, form rejections with an encouragement to submit again, and then the personalized rejections, where the editors often explain that they liked your story, but didn’t have room for it, but would love for you to resubmit…would’ve never thought to be excited over a rejection until now.

In terms of my own work, I think I’ve learned to not try to write what I think an editorial team will be interested in. If I begin to lose that personal edge, then that’s not helpful to me or the person reading my work, because it’s always about standing out from that pile of submissions. Even if a submission’s plot may need a little reconfiguring, I think the editors would much rather work with that than a clean story with a little less heat.

EF: Last question. There’s a sense somehow that we’re in a polarized cultural moment—a time when we’re both more aware of sexual and gender discrimination and racism in society at large (as well as in the literary community) and where misogynists and racist are more emboldened. What responsibility falls on a literary journal and its editors working and publishing in this milieu? 

We recently had author Ben Fountain come to the MFA program to visit, and he remarked how important it is for writers to get out, see the world, and come back to tell the truths of it. Writers are here to tell stories that hold us accountable. It’s the editors’ responsibility to let those voices be heard. Most journals’ processes, at their core, are about finding creative work that encapsulate the human condition, so often enough stories are commenting on past, present, or future social culture. I don’t speak for all literary journals by any means, but here at the GR we don’t wish to limit the subjects, styles, or voices we work with, and also do our best to select pieces that promote the journal’s vision, which is to publish the best stuff we get, period.

 

Evan Fackler is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. You can find him on Twitter @evanchilli